On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah - Noach: Electing a Righteous Leader

Almost everybody knows the story of Noach. God tells Noach that there is going to be a flood that will destroy all living things, and it’s up to Noach to build an ark in order to save his family and repopulate the Earth. But how many of us have looked deeper into the story, and noticed those details that may not jump out at first look? Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, discusses those details that often get left out of the story, and even tells us how those details relate to our current US election.

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[URJ Intro:] Welcome to episode 41 of “On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah,” a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, we reflect on more than 2,000 years of Jewish wisdom in just 10 minutes with modern day commentary on the weekly Torah portion. Of course, we think there are plenty of ways to interpret Torah, and we want to hear what you think. So, talk to us on Twitter. Our handle is @ReformJudaism or like us at facebook.com/ReformJudaism and subscribe to the podcast on iTunes.

This week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the President of the Union for Reform Judaism, teaches us about Parashat Noach. He asks what it means to stand up for others? What are you willing to do with every ounce of your strength, and how do you create a world which is safe for everyone?

[Rabbi Rick:] This week, we turn our attention to Parashat Noach, the story of Noah, the second Torah portion in the book of Genesis. A story that is, of course, well known. You couldn't be alive and more than a month old and not know something about this story.

Maybe you had, when you were a child, a little kind of Noah set in your room, as I did. But what's pretty remarkable is that there's a lot in this story that may not jump out when we first look at it. But let's take a little bit deeper look.

First of all, let me just ask the question. There's only one individual in the entire Hebrew Bible who is called a tzaddik, a righteous person, and I want to ask, who is it? Is it the great Moses? Is it the pioneer Abraham?

Is it the poet and politician David? Is it the decisive Deborah? Is it the priestly Aaron, or the prophetic Miriam?

It turns out that the only one who designated as tzaddik is this individual named Noah. “Noach ish tzaddik haya b’dorotam.” Noah was a righteous person in his generation.

So, you're going to ask me next, so what did he do to earn this title of being righteous? And the answer is -- we don't know. The Torah doesn't tell us what Noah does to earn this designation that sets him apart from all the other worthies in the world, but there is a bit of an election going on in the time of the Torah. It's, I think, parallel this week to an election that may be taking place also in your neck of the woods if you are from the United States, or if you know of the United States.

And what's amazing in this election in the Torah is who is going to be the first Jewish person, who is going to show themselves worthy. And when God says to Noah, Noah, I am going to destroy the Earth. I'm going to bring a flood upon the Earth, and I want you to build an ark. And I want you to take animals, and I want you to put them in. Noah actually is not the guy who takes issue with God.

The Zohar says when Noah challenges God and says to God, “How come, how can you do this? How come you are a compassionate God, but you literally wiped the Earth clean? And you, in that act, you killed individuals. You killed animals.”

And God said to Noah, “This was a test. I did this hoping you would raise your voice. I did this hoping you would challenge me and say, that's not what a just God does. But you were only concerned that you would be OK. You were only concerned that your family, animals would be safe inside the ark.”

And for that reason, we learn Noah is not elected the one who will, in a sense, begin Jewish history and be the one who is the founder of our tradition. No, that will actually wait a week, when we know that Avraham and Sarah are chosen because they have the moral backbone not only to stand up to those in their world that challenge what is right and good, but they're even willing to challenge God.

When God says God's going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, you know that infamous passage. Abraham says, “How dare you? Hashofet kol ha’aretz lo ya’aseh mishpat? Will the judge of all the Earth not do righteous?” So, Abraham shows himself to be a person who is willing to stand up for others, whose own personal welfare is not the sole thing that guides his decision making.

So, we have Noah, and we have Abraham. We have a very clear choice. God said, I don't want the one who begins Jewish history to be the one who thinks narrowly, who cares narrowly, but the one whose wisdom and whose leadership extends to protect and to care for those all around. Those of his own family, those who he doesn't know, even those, as in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, those who may not be even worthy in others' eyes.

So, as we think about what are the qualities in our own life, this designation of tzaddik maybe it is that Noah is a tzaddik but we don't know what it is. And I think that there's something about our culture where too often we honor people with all these public accolades for all the good that they do. The Torah is also reminding us there's something called the tzaddik nistar. There's something about doing good quietly without a lot of fanfare, without collecting a big prize.

What is it that we do when no one's looking? What is it that we are willing to give to others and to quietly stand up for? Knowing that we're not going to necessarily get some reward for it, but we just know it's the right thing.

So, as we know, the big decision about who will lead is before not just the Torah, but it's before so many people who will make choices. Can we also say that those people who honor the core of our Jewish tradition, because in very, very modest and simple and regular ways, they do acts of kindness for the people around them. Some that they've never met, will never see again. It's just who they are.

And may we be led by people who have those instincts, who think not just, what's good for me? What's good for my family? What's good for the world, they ask themselves. And what's my responsibility? What can I do that will shape in a very, very concrete way a better day, a better week, a better life for someone else?

So, as we remember Noah, we don't just think of the flood. We don't just think of the ark. We think of ourselves, and who are we? And how do we conduct our lives? What are we willing to quietly do, and what are we willing to do with every ounce of our strength?

So that we quietly, and sometimes in a very public way, stand for the values that matter most and are willing to challenge even the Creator of the universe when God sets a test before us. So, I hope that as we tell this story, we don't just go into automatic pilot and remember the parts of this story that are so familiar. Let's actually use the story as a prism through which we can see choices in our own lives, choices in our public life, choices in our private lives that will allow each of us to have qualities of tzaddik, of a righteous person, in the way that we choose to live, the way that we choose to conduct ourselves. And if we focus in that way, the world will be a very different place.

So, no matter if it's Noah or Abraham or who gets the election, each of us has a deep and profound moral responsibility. Noah reminds us of that. The days in which we find ourselves in contemporary history remind us of that. So, I hope that we'll not just hear a story. I hope we'll be awakened by the possibilities in this story.

And next week when we focus our attention on the Parashat Lech L’cha, when Jewish history really begins, we can see that contrast of leaders. Who are those who don't just create an ark so that they can be safe, but they create a world so that all of us can be safe? All of us could enjoy the bounty and the plenty and the possibility of our lives.

So, this is a pretty dramatic moment in the Torah. It's a dramatic moment for everyone on the planet, particularly for those in the United States of America. And just let's use the tradition to guide us always, to choose wisely, and to choose the path of righteousness, the path of blessing, and the path of holiness.

[URJ Outro:] Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of “On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah.” If you liked what you heard today, and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week at ReformJudaism.org and on iTunes, where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit ReformJudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism, including rituals, culture, holidays, and more. “On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah” is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life.

Until next week -- l’hitraot!